Defining Moments: It Gets Better

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The Defining Moments series looks back at the biggest events of 2010 to see what we can learn from them here at P&P, to work better in our calling, in 2011 and beyond.

It Gets Better

The Trevor Project

On September 22, 2010, a skinny, redheaded 18-year-old changed education and laws across the country. That would be a wonderful achievement, except that Tyler Clementi did it by killing himself. It happened in a string of four days out of his first month of college – facilitated, its worth mentioning, by laptops, webcams, cell phones, text messaging, Skype, Twitter, message boards and Facebook.

Sunday, he asked his roommate, Dharun Ravi, for privacy. Dharun went to the room of a third freshman, Molly Wei. Once there, he used her laptop to view the webcam on his own laptop, left in his and Tylers room. (One assumes that before he left, he set Skype to automatically answer incoming calls.) Dharun spied Tyler and his guest (another male) kissing and Tweeted about it.

Tuesday morning, Tyler saw Dharuns Twitter feed, and in considering how to handle the situation, posted his dilemma on a message board. That evening, Tyler texted Dharun with the same request, and he agreed, but arranged the same setup, and tweeted about it. Tyler, moved the laptop and told their resident assistant, who had him report the situation in writing.

Apparently he situation bothered Tyler more than he let on. Apparently he had not yet come out to his family. Apparently, although he was academically and musically gifted, hed felt “very defeated by [high school] and hated the whole thing. Apparently he didnt see a way that the situation could resolve itself positively. Whatever he was thinking and feeling, that Wednesday night, Tyler posted “jumping off the gw bridge sorry on Facebook from a newly downloaded mobile app and committed suicide before two witnesses.

It was just one of a string of youth suicides, many related to the child being, or being perceived as, gay. But Tyler Clementis was the tipping point. Since then, anti-bullying resolutions, proposals, public vigils and laws have taken place at the district, state and federal level. There are, clearly, many important lessons that can be learned from this tragic situation. Lets just touch on two.

We have to educate kids about the implications of digital information. While a trial has not yet happened (and Ravi’s lawyers are asking for a dismissal), Dharun Ravi does not seem to have premeditated a complex campaign to drive Tyler Clementi to kill himself. He seems to have been possibly homophobic, but mostly just simply, stupidly, cruelly thoughtless. Making a secret public was just a joke. Tweeting was just fast and funny. He was just goofing around in his friends room, bored on a school night. It wasnt anything that could have serious implications. Except, of course, it could, and it did. Tyler Clementi is dead, and Dharun Ravi could spend five years in prison.

This is the most extreme example of the blasé attitude many youth have toward sharing information online. Not all digital natives fully understand that it is permanent and public, and something teenagers through the ages have had problems understanding: a moments whim can have lifelong consequences.

All of us who work with these media have a responsibility to make sure theyre understood: not just by our bosses, colleagues and clients, but to the kids in our houses and our communities. Were shepherding these technologies into the mainstream, and theres an obligation that goes with that.

We have the ability to make something good out of something bad. The Trevor Project and The It Gets Better Project are two organizations who have stepped up to provide positive messages and encouragement for kids floundering, dealing with adolescence and bullying.

This is a lesson that should not be new to us in pharma: that digital media can assist us in taking something awful to make a positive movement to save lives. Support groups like Planet Cancer and Psoriasis Cure Now are given worldwide reach and power; and harness abilities like shared video for awareness-raising efforts like contests. Lets never forget that these media can reach the patients who are most self-conscious, most afraid, most ashamed: the patients, in short, who need information, empathy and advice most of all .

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